If you are wanting to eat less sugar, and you’re curious about what to eat for snacks, start here. In this post, I offer concrete ideas of satisfying sugar free snacks, especially for children, teens and families – which describes my household, too. I also offer a perspective on reframing how you define a “snack” that many have found helpful.
In this post I also offer a surprising way to help your children both develop a healthy relationship with food and transition into eating healthier snacks and foods, especially if they’re used to eating an excess of processed, packaged goodies like goldfish crackers, granola bars or cookies between meals.
I included this material because I get a lot of emails from parents who’ve struggled with food, and they feel alarmed about passing on their food compulsions to their children. They wonder – how do I help my child so they don’t have to suffer as I did?
If this describes you, I have so much compassion for you!
When we feel alarmed, we tend to tighten down – we may try to control a child’s food environment or food intake to ensure a “correct outcome” – what we hope is a healthy relationship with food. But this approach often backfires.
The way to give our children a healthy relationship with food isn’t what you hear from the media (educate kids on nutrition, or build skills) It’s intuitive, and lies in our hearts. Like the bears in the photo, it’s about relationship: when we have our children’s hearts and we lead them, they follow.
Children develop a healthy relationship with food from the culture in which they’re raised – and this culture includes their family, their extended family, their community, their village and more. So my focus is on nurturing the culture and relationship – what’s called attachment – with a child. Those are, surprisingly, the answers to helping a child with food.
Read on to learn more.
What is a snack?
In many Western cultures, we equate snacks with “treats” or dessert – muffins, cookies, biscuits, ice cream, chips, crackers, and all sorts of tasty things that come in boxes and packages. So when you’re cutting down on sugar, and eating more unprocessed, whole foods, you may feel stumped about what snacking can look like.
It may help to separate the notion of “treats” and “snacks.” I think of snacks as a mini meal – an opportunity to nourish the body when it’s hungry. A treat is just that – a treat. Often not nutritious, but something that gives us pleasure and that we can absolutely enjoy.
I eat both snacks and treats, as I imagine you do, too.
Most of my snacks are snacks – mini meals – not treats. (I share more below.)
And I eat treats, but they are treats. (This is different than how I ate when I first stopped eating sugar. Then I gave myself no treats, which I found to be too obsessive and unnecessary.) My treats include a wide variety of foods – dark chocolate, ice cream, baked granny smith apples (which are very sweet for me), dried figs, birthday desserts (our family’s favorite is a fruit crisp), black licorice, or my husband’s homemade popcorn – popped in coconut oil and drizzled with butter. (Here’s an example of my favorite treat – my no sugar, no flour birthday cake – a recipe my husband created and makes for me.)
If you measured it, I probably follow an 80/20 rule, where 80% of my food choices are nourishing, and 20% are for fun! (If your relationship with sugar feels like 20/80 – where you eat sugar 80% of the time and “healthy food” 20% of the time – you may enjoy this article on how to say no to sugar without white knuckling it.)
But this is what feels balanced for me and my body. I offer my life as an example, not a prescription, and invite you to sit with your heart to find the balance of treating that your body needs.
When do you need a snack?
You may find that as you eat less sugar and fewer processed foods that your blood sugar stabilizes and that you feel more satisfied by your meals. You may not need to snack as often. I have low blood sugar, so I eat every 4 hours or so. I also find that eating a meal with balanced ratios of fat, protein and complex carbs satisfies me for several hours and leads to less hunger between meals.
And yet, the afternoon is often a time when my body needs a snack, especially as we tend to eat dinner later due to family activities. I’m often out during the afternoon with children’s activities, and so I typically take a snack with me.
If I’m going to be gone for more than a quick trip, I’ll pack an insulated lunch box with a variety of foods: almonds; cooked sliced chicken breast, some cooked cold green beans, and baby carrots with hummus. I also take a big bottle of water.
This is where advance preparation can make a huge impact. For years, I ate whole foods while at home, but ate lots of processed food at parties or when running errands. Because I didn’t plan, I’d show up at birthday parties starving, or would be so hungry after running errands all day that I’d give in to the first food I saw: usually junk. Now, I care for myself by planning ahead and taking the time to take food with me.
Low sugar snacks
For snacks, I often have nuts: pumpkin seeds, walnuts, pistachios and almonds are my favorites. I love to pair them with a tart green apple or some berries. Many times, I’ll have a small meal, such as a bowl of soup or a salad, when I’m hungry.
But what about children’s snacks? While I serve my children an abundance of whole foods, I also make room for treats. My kids do eat sugar, and my husband and I offer them intentional treats. If you took a picture of my pantry and fridge right now, you’d find tons of whole foods – as well as treat foods like low sugar granola, Nut thins, tortilla chips, and potato chips in the pantry, a dark chocolate bar in the fridge, and several flavors of ice cream in the freezer.
For example, Saturday night is pizza night at our house. They often have a treat with it like a stevia sweetened or kombucha soda, fresh popped popcorn in coconut oil, or sugar sweetened (vs. corn syrup sweetened) ice cream with berries and nuts. This is the balance that works for our family. I also have teenagers, and I’m sure they have treats when they’re out of the house!
How to help your child love healthy food
One of the surprising things I’ve learned about weaning my children off too much processed or sugary foods is that as the mom – the provider and caretaker – I need to take it upon myself to offer and prepare healthy food for my children. This is not something to leave up to my children, nor to make their responsibility. This knowledge came from studying with my mentor, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, and his attachment based theory of child development.
We often tell children – especially children who are old enough to do so – to fix themselves a snack or healthy food when they’re hungry. Then we can feel frustrated when we find them later, snacking on junk. But this misses an understanding of how children grow and develop.
It’s a paradox: we foster independence in our children not by forcing or pushing independence, but by fostering dependence. The more children feel cared for and nurtured the more they want to stand on their own two feet and learn to do it themselves. It’s how they internally develop those models and patterns and forms of, “This is how I eat. This is how I care for my body. This is what makes my body feel good.”
If you want your children to internalize a healthy relationship with food and want them to choose healthy foods on their own as they grow and leave home, you need to create a positive food culture that associates loving memories of connection, contact, closeness, and pleasure with healthy food.
It’s these positive memories, combined with your provision of healthy food, that is their best bet against unhealthy eating habits – not indoctrinating your children to the dangers of junk food or explaining why they need certain foods or why they shouldn’t eat others.
If you want to learn more about this idea, you may enjoy reading Jeannie Marshall’s memoir, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids, her story of raising her son in the food culture of Italy and her understanding of how we pass on a love of healthy food to our children.
Move to care for your child by feeding them
One of the keys to this approach is to offer your children regular, hearty meals of whole foods. I find that my children will often say, “I’m not hungry” when I ask them if they want something to eat. But if I move to care for them and prepare food for them, they will happily eat it – even foods like vegetables! It’s not that they’re not hungry when they say, “I’m not hungry,” – more accurately, it’s that they’re tired and they don’t feel like cooking themselves something healthy. It’s why they eat chips or candy instead – it takes no effort to prepare these foods.
What they’re needing and wanting is to be cared for and fed. This is an invitation for us to move to meet their needs, to be their answer and offer them healthy, nourishing food. This longing to be fed and nourished is no different than how we feel at the end of the day – tired, worn out and hungry. We also long to return home to a delicious, healthy home cooked meal and the greater sense of relaxation that comes from being cared for. I know when my husband does this for me I feel so nurtured and supported!
Some ideas of healthy snacks
So rather than serving snack foods, or spending hours buying, reading labels, or trying to find a healthy snack food that is sugar free, try making yourself or your child a mini meal when they’re hungry. Here are some ideas from my family’s repertoire:
- Dinner leftovers from the night before – a bowl of soup is especially satisfying at 4 p.m.
- A huge salad with veggies, some protein (meat, cheese, nuts, etc.), tart apples, and a tangy, rich homemade dressing. I like this one from Well Fed author, Melissa Joulwan. I LOVE this dressing. I quadruple the recipe as it goes so fast in our house.
- Veggies and homemade ranch dip (I make this dairy free ranch with coconut cream here)
- If you or your children can handle grains, try toast (made on sprouted, grainless bread) with almond butter or unsweetened peanut butter
- A cheese and salami plate (we like the Applegate farms brand that is nitrate free)
- Nitrate free bacon and a fried egg (We eat a lot of bacon at our house.)
- Guacamole and veggies (We live in Texas and eat a lot of guacamole.)
- Hummus and veggies
- Corn tortillas with hot melted cheddar cheese, black beans, and salsa. (I put several on a cookie sheet and stick them in the broiler until they’re warm and the cheese is melted and bubbly. Yes, I am known to forget that there are tortillas in the broiler and to notice the alarming smell of something burning.)
- A serving of low sugar fruit, such as an apple, some berries, tangerines or a nectarine, with some peanut butter, almond butter or nuts
- An apple or banana, cut into slices, with almond butter
- Plain yogurt or plain greek yogurt with almonds and berries (We use fresh when available; frozen berries in the winter.)
- A rice cake with cream cheese and peanut butter, sometimes with a dash of a no-sugar added jam (I know it sounds odd, but my kids loved these when they were small.)
- Set out a plate of veggies, like cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, and red peppers, some diced grilled, leftover chicken, hardboiled eggs, and some leftover meatballs
- Nuts: almonds, cashews and pistachios are my kid’s favorites
- Smoothies: we probably make a smoothie 7-8 times a week in our house. We use a variety of frozen fruit, unsweetened protein powder, greens, bananas, nuts, seeds – you can stick all sorts of healthy things in smoothies!
- An antipasto platter of olives, sliced mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and grapes
- Tuna, salmon or chicken salad – we don’t eat much tuna anymore, as we prefer salmon for health reasons. Here’s how you can find wild caught, canned salmon. I make my own homemade mayo without sugar every week, and use it for all sorts of things, including meat salads. I use this recipe and omit the honey.
- A piece of leftover fritatta from breakfast
- Steamed broccoli with a baked red potato topped with lots of butter